Finally, after a short wait of 25 years, an all-star game worth getting a little worked up about is on the way.
On Tuesday night in the hideous Houston Astrodome, Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox and Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets probably will start against each other. With the sort of luck that hangs over this game, one of them may stub his toe while warming up and withdraw. But they're scheduled now.
Not only will this be the first meeting between the two best and most celebrated pitchers of the present moment, but it well may be the best matchup of pitchers in the 52-year history of the classic.
We've done our homework and we know about Carl Hubbell vs. Lefty Gomez (1934), Dizzy Dean vs. Lefty Grove ('36), Whitey Ford vs. Warren Spahn ('61), Sandy Koufax vs. Denny McLain ('66), Jim Palmer vs. Tom Seaver ('70) and Steve Carlton vs. Nolan Ryan ('79). But, all in all, there's never been one this good -- on paper.
Gooden and Clemens may not equal the records of the men listed above; that's years down the road. But they've set as fast a pace as any and they've done it with more dazzle than almost anybody.
Since the all-star game began, no child pitcher can touch Gooden's arrival on the scene. His 276 strikeouts in 218 innings as a rookie -- the all-time record. His 24-4 sophomore record. His 1.53 ERA last year -- the second-best mark since deadball times. And his 34-5 streak at one juncture.
As for Clemens, he's been ballyhooed in the prodigy market for three years, but it's only his first three months this season that count: a 14-0 start and a record 20 strikeouts in one game. His 97-mph fastball is just a blink behind the quickest ever and, at 23, his control is about as good as any top-stuff pitcher ever.
It's not exactly boring anybody that the Mets and Red Sox also have -- by huge margins -- the best winning percentages in baseball and the pitchers might meet, oh, say, two or three times in the World Series.
In their own leagues, neither Gooden nor Clemens really has a pitcher worthy of comparison when it comes to raw, breathtaking power of intimidation. Others can strike or shut you out. But only Gooden and Clemens make you want to thank them for the privilege of having had it done to you.
In a sense, all fabulous pitchers in their prime are the same -- unhittable performers who have more tools than they need to keep the score at zero. Koufax in 1963, Bob Gibson in '68, Carlton in '72, Ron Guidry in '78, Gooden in '85 and Clemens, if he keeps it up, in '86.
The score can't go lower than 0-0 unless we find some way to give negative runs for not advancing a man past second base or first. Or not getting men on base at all. To a degree, the best pitchers warp the natural parameters of the game in a way that hitters never do. On certain days, when everything is working, they can go beyond the limits of what is necessary to be almost unbeatable.
A run or two, a few singles, a walk perhaps -- that's the most for which a whole team hopes and struggles. A one-hitter, or some other collective embarrassment, seems as likely as knocking out the fellow. When a pitcher reaches this temporary state, his defeats are almost mistakes, due to bad hops, errors, windblown pops, guess hits with the eyes closed. At the moment, both Gooden and Clemens are close to just such a summit -- though both have been a little off lately, Gooden for a few weeks, Clemens for a few days.
What we truly want is to see them on the same mound, at the same time, under the same conditions so that the memory of each will be fresh and sharp every time the other returns to the mound.
Clemens is supposed to be a little faster, but Gooden's ball runs more, it's said. We'll see. Gooden's curve is better, more of a knee-locker, whereas Clemens' seems like a big hard slider. Who knows which man has the more nearly perfect control or the better touch with hitters?
Since they only will be around three innings at the most, we won't be able to judge stamina or get much sense of the heart that means so much in a three-hour duel that ends up 2-1 or 1-0.
Down through the years, we'll get a book full of answers on these two. Can Gooden endure Big Apple fame without fading to mere excellence? Will Clemens' shoulder plague him again? This is the worst era in history for pitching longevity. Something in the water.
One thing almost is certain. Once Clemens and Gooden leave the stage, it's all right to switch off the tube or take out the trash. If this all-star game stands on its own feet, independent of this pair, it only will be for about the third time in a generation.
When an event stays in a slump since World War II, and remains in a state of unremitting catatonia from the last year of the Eisenhower presidency until the present moment, it's unwise to get too excited.
For example, last year's affair (indoors in Minneapolis) was typical of the sort of midsummer thrills that have, over the past 25 years, made the all-star game the Anybody Wanna Go Bowling classic.
The National League won (yes, that's 26 of 29 since 1959) in dull and somewhat mysterious fashion. Mysterious in that a good Class AAA team probably could do better than 3-26 against the all-stars of both leagues. As usual, the players on center stage were not those for whom the year eventually would be remembered. LaMarr Hoyt started against Jack Morris. Neither finished the year in the top 20 in the majors in wins. Of the season's eventual superstar pitchers -- Gooden, John Tudor, Bret Saberhagen, Orel Hershiser -- none threw a pitch and only Gooden was even on the team. Neither league batting champion nor RBI leader started. Only one member of the eventual world champion Royals, George Brett, even made the squad.
Nobody did anything memorable. No home runs were hit. In fact, a homer-hitting contest the day before (45,000 attended) was the highlight of the three days. Tom Brunansky won that, 18-17, for the AL with his last swings and, in the process, put himself in an overswinging slump that he says ruined his season. That's the sort of anticlimax for which this game is justly famous. Yes, Hubbell struck out those five in a row. Ted Williams homered off the eephus pitch. Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse. Reggie Jackson hit the transformer in Detroit. Dean broke his foot. And Willie Mays usually did something.
But, be honest now, what month (or week) in baseball doesn't produce more memorable events than all the all-star games combined? Didn't Bob Horner hit four homers in a game last week?
For once, as Tuesday night approaches, we can cross our fingers for something really special.
But we shouldn't hold our breath.